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253 posts categorized "Decoration"

15 April 2021

A newly discovered manuscript from Byland Abbey

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In 1538, the Cistercian abbey of St Mary at Byland in Yorkshire surrendered its house to King Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547), who was dissolving all of England’s religious houses around this time. The abbey was founded in 1153 in a remote area of the North Yorkshire Moors. This location was particularly suitable for Cistercian monks, since their order encouraged them to seek solitude at desolate and wild locations. The abbey grew to become one of England’s largest Cistercian monasteries and amassed a magnificent library of most likely hundreds of books. With Byland Abbey’s dissolution, however, its library became forever dispersed. Until now, only a small number of its manuscripts have been rediscovered. However, in our ongoing Harley cataloguing project, we have identified a previously unknown Byland Abbey manuscript. In this blogpost, we will explore this discovery further.

A watercolour, showing a gateway, with behind it the ruins of an abbey, representing Byland.
A watercolour of Byland Abbey, as seen through its gateway, by John Chessell Buckler (1793–1894): Add MS 37120/9

The MLGB3 website records twenty-six manuscripts and manuscript fragments that have been identified from the library of Byland Abbey. Many of these manuscripts are now kept at the British Library. Most famous among these is a theological manuscript (Royal MS 15 A XX) which features ghost stories that were written by one of the abbey’s monks in the early 15th century. You can read about these spine-chilling tales in our previous blogpost.

Other Byland Abbey manuscripts include religious works such as a 13th-century copy of the Verbum Abbreviatum [Abridged Word] (Add MS 35180), a manual on moral theology by the French theologian Peter Cantor (d. 1197); a late 12th- or early 13th-century copy of the Historica Scolastica (Arundel MS 368), a work on biblical history by the French theologian Petrus Comestor (d. 1178); and a 12th-century copy of the Gesta Pontificum Anglorum [Deeds of the Bishops of the English] (Harley MS 3641) by the Benedictine monk and historian William of Malmesbury (b. c. 1090, d. in or after 1142).

A large red initial ‘P’ with penwork decoration in the same colour at the beginning of William of Malmesbury’s history of the deeds of English bishops.
The opening of William of Malmesbury Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (Byland, 2nd half of the 12th century): Harley MS 3641, f. 1r

To these identified manuscripts from Byland Abbey, we can now add a Bible from the second quarter of the 13th century (Harley MS 2807). The manuscript of almost 340 parchment leaves is ornamented with decorated initials throughout. Strikingly for a manuscript from a Cistercian house from this period, some of these initials also contain illustrations. Cistercian manuscripts, in line with the order’s ideals of austerity and simplicity, typically only feature restricted forms of decoration at this date. The order issued statutes between 1145 and 1151, and in 1202, which stipulated that letters should be made of one colour and contain no figurative images. Only one of Byland’s identified manuscripts features figurative images. This is a 12th-century Psalter (York, Minster Library, MS XVI.I.7) with two initials containing dragons that combat human figures. The Harley manuscript, in contrast, has three decorated initials, of which two are elaborate and depict identifiable historical and biblical figures.

The first of the decorated letters in the Harley manuscript appears at the beginning of a prefatory letter by St Jerome (c. 342–420), known for his work on the translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible. Here an initial ‘F’ features a depiction of St Jerome at his writing desk.

A blue and red initial with a tonsured figure in a dark blue habit seated at a writing desk, holding a scroll in one hand and a quill in the other
St Jerome at his writing desk in a decorated initial ‘F’ (? Byland, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 2807, f. 3r

Another example of the manuscript’s illustrations can be found at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, where the initial ‘I’ features scenes from the Creation, with, below that, a depiction of the Crucifixion.

A green initial ‘I’ with six panels that represent scenes from the Creation, and in the lower margin, a seventh panel of the Crucifixion, with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist next to Christ on the Cross.
Scenes from the Creation and Crucifixion in a decorated initial ‘I’ (? Byland, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 2807, f. 5v

Further, an initial ‘I’ at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark features a horned mask at the top and a three-faced crowned head upside-down at the bottom.

A blue and red initial ‘I’ with a horned grotesque on top of the letter, and below the letter, upside down, a three-faced crowned head that seems to be breathing fire out of two of its mouths.
An initial decorated ‘I’ with grotesques at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark (? Byland, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 2807, f. 283v

Until now, little was known about the manuscript’s origin and ownership before it reached the library of Robert Harley (1661–1724) and his son Edward Harley (1689–1741). Its only known owner was William Petyt (1636–1707), antiquary of Middle Temple and Keeper of the Tower Records, who added his coat of arms and a title-page in 1665.

The heraldic achievement of William Petyt, including his coat of arms, mantle, helmet, crest, and motto, coloured with red, pink, and gold.
The heraldic achievement of William Petyt, added in 1665 to f. 1r of Harley MS 2807

In re-cataloguing the Bible manuscript, however, we have found two previously unnoticed erased inscriptions written on empty pages at the end of the volume. More importantly, with the help of UV light, we have been able to decipher both of these.

One inscription is written in a 13th-century script and confirms Byland Abbey’s ownership in a Latin formula that can be found in various of its other manuscripts: ‘Liber Sancte Marie de Bellalanda’ [The Book of St Mary of Byland]. You can compare this inscription with the nearly identical ownership inscription that is visible in the second image of this blogpost (at the top of f. 1r of William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum Anglorum in Harley MS 3641).

13th-century inscription under UV light
UV light image of an erased 13th-century ownership inscription by Byland Abbey in Harley MS 2807, f. 339r

The other inscription also confirms Byland’s ownership, but it is written in a 15th-century script and gives the monastery’s location in English: ‘Liber Beate Marie de Byland’. This ownership formula can only be found in one other manuscript (now Manchester, John Rylands Library, Lat. 153). Both inscriptions may have been added by the same 15th-century librarian at the abbey.

15th-century inscription under UV light
UV light image of an erased 15th-century ownership inscription by Byland Abbey in Harley MS 2807, f. 338v

These inscriptions leave little doubt that Harley MS 2807 was present at Byland Abbey soon after its production, and was kept there for hundreds of years, probably until the monastery’s dissolution. The identification of the manuscript’s provenance contributes to the efforts of scholars to reconstruct the monastic libraries that were dispersed in King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. Further research into the manuscript may shed new light on book production by Cistercian monasteries in Northern England, and on their changing views on the use of decoration in the books they preserved.

We will keep posting on the findings that we are making in our Harley cataloguing project, so keep a close eye on this blog!

Clarck Drieshen
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13 April 2021

Decorating the Decretum

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Church law, known as canon law (from the Greek word kanon, meaning ‘rule’), sets out the rules governing Church organization and Christian practice. In the early Christian period different types of rules, such as the decisions of councils, papal letters and episcopal statutes were circulated separately. But in the middle of the 12th century, a legal scholar called Gratian sought to systematise and harmonise these decisions by bringing them together in one volume. His work, generally known as the Decretum Gratiani sive Concordantia Discordantium Canonum (the Decretals of Gratian or concordance of discordant canons), became the first general textbook of canon law. The Decretum was the first of six volumes of canon law produced between the 12th and 14th centuries, and formed the main basis of Church law until the early 20th century.

The work quickly became a fundamental textbook for students and teachers of law, and several hundred medieval copies of the Decretum survive today. The text itself features case studies relating to a wide range of topics, including ecclesiastical administration, marriage and the Sacraments. These cases (or causae) describe various situations and develop questions from them.

Manuscript illustration of a pope with two litigant bishops and their advisers, from a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
A pope acting as a judge with two litigant bishops and their advisers, from a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, France, 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 10 D VIII, f. 133v (detail)

Very often, Gratian’s text is accompanied by later commentaries, used to interpret aspects of the cases discussed in the main text. These glossed copies typically feature a distinctive page layout in which Gratian’s text appears in the centre of the page, with the outer and lower margins occupied by the commentary.

In illuminated copies, decoration assists in distinguishing various sections of the text by illustrating each case with a decorated or historiated initial. For example, in an elaborate copy made in Barcelona, a case (causa 14) concerning the receipt of funds by clerics begins with an image of the pope sitting with an open book instructing tonsured men, while money changes hands to the left. In this copy each of the six questions also begins with a large initial in gold that corresponds to one in the surrounding gloss indicating the start of the commentary on that question.

A text page with a miniature of a pope, clerics, and laymen with a money bag, from the beginning of Causa 14 in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
A text page with a miniature of a pope, clerics, and laymen with a money bag, from the beginning of Causa 14 in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, Barcelona, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century: Add MS 15274, f. 201v

Sometimes the subjects of the initials do not relate to the text directly. The beginning of Part I of the Decretum in this French copy probably made in Sens features a Channel-style initial with naked men and lions or dogs clambering amongst the structure of the letter ‘H’(umanum) (human). In these cases, the initials may have served primarily to help a reader find and remember the place of relevant cases or other divisions more quickly, instead of illustrating them. 

Full page with an illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H', in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
Full page with an illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H', in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, , probably Sens, last quarter of the 12th century: Arundel MS 490, f. 7r
An illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H' with naked men and lions or dogs, in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
Detail of an illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H' with naked men and lions or dogs, in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, probably Sens, last quarter of the 12th century: Arundel MS 490, f. 7r

In this way, medieval artists were able to make these legal manuscripts beautiful as well as useful. If you would like to find out more about medieval legal texts, take a look at our article on Legal manuscripts in England and France.

Kathleen Doyle

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04 April 2021

Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal

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One of the most glorious celebrations of the feast of Easter in a medieval manuscript is surely the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal. In November 2020 we took a detailed look at this page and its beautiful artwork for the BBC Radio 4 Moving Pictures programme, which you can still listen to on the BBC website. If you didn’t get chance to listen to the programme at the time, or even if you did, we think it would make perfect seasonal listening for this Easter weekend.

The Resurrection of Christ from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal
Decorated initial letter ‘R’ containing a scene of the Resurrection of Christ, from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

Moving Pictures is a radio series that offers listeners the chance to take a long, slow look at great artworks, photographed in incredible detail. You're invited to view a high-resolution image on Google Arts & Culture while presenter Cathy FitzGerald and a group of experts talk you through the details. The speakers on the Sherborne Missal episode are Kathleen Doyle (the British Library), Eleanor Jackson (the British Library), Alixe Bovey (the Courtauld Institute of Art), Paul Binski (the University of Cambridge) and Patricia Lovett (professional scribe and illuminator).

Details of portraits of the patrons and craftsmen of the Sherborne Missal
The patrons Bishop Mitford and Abbot Brunyng (left), and the scribe and artist, John Whas and John Siferwas (right), from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (details)

Made in the early 15th century for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, Dorset, the Sherborne Missal is a particularly impressive example of a book containing the texts that were read as part of the Mass on the different feast days throughout the year. The page for Easter Sunday is lavished with intricate decoration exploring the significance of Christ’s Resurrection, as well as portraits of the main people involved in the making of the manuscript, whimsical fight scenes and beautifully observed representations of the natural world.

A detail of a picture of a bittern from the Sherborne Missal
Probable bittern, from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

Discover the hidden meanings behind the artwork and celebrate the joys of medieval Easter by listening online while viewing the high-resolution image. You can also find out more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost.

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22 March 2021

The colour purple

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Purple is a colour replete with imperial and spiritual associations. Certain Roman emperors famously reserved the use of purple clothing for themselves. It was also expensive: Diocletian’s Edict of Maximum Prices issued in the year 301 set the limit on a pound of purple wool at 50,000 denarii, the same value as a pound of gold. Books, too, written on purple were high-status objects. According to one account, Constantine the Great (r. 306-337) received a gift of poetry written in gold and silver on purple leaves (ostro tota nitens, argento auroque coruscis scripta notis) (P. Optatianus Porfyrius, Carmina I: 1-4.).

One of the earliest surviving manuscripts written in gold and silver on purple-stained parchment is in fact named for this colour: the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, a Greek manuscript of the Gospels written in the 6th century. In the Middle Ages, it seems probable that scribes and artists were inspired by these Late Antique manuscripts to incorporate purple into the design of prestigious books.

A page from the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, coloured purple with script in silver
Fragment from the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, Antioch, 2nd half of the 6th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 3r

From an early date, the use of purple in Christian biblical texts, often in combination with gold or silver writing, came to symbolise their sacred nature. For example, Godescalc, the scribe of a Gospel Lectionary made for the Emperor Charlemagne in 780, explained that ‘golden words’ on purple pages ‘disclose the joys of heaven’ (the manuscript is now BnF, MS nouv. acq. latin 1203).

One of the places where purple features in illuminated manuscripts is in full-page title or ‘incipit’ pages (from the Latin word incipit, meaning ‘it begins’), often paired with text written in gold or silver. An impressive example is found in a 9th-century manuscript made in the important centre of Tours. It is framed by decorated rectangular panels and interlaced golden corner pieces, which introduce the Gospel of St Matthew: ‘Incipit Evangel[ium] Sec[un]d[u]m Mattheu[m]’ (The beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew), written on painted purples panels.

Title page with a decorative frame and gold script on a purple background
Beginning of the Gospel of St Matthew, Tours, 2nd half of the 9th century: Add MS 11849, f. 26v

Sometimes an entire page is coloured purple, as in this early Bible from Canterbury, which although incomplete, retains four purple leaves. Three feature text written in alternating lines of gold and silver capital letters, while the fourth includes an Evangelist portrait of St Luke. The columns, formed of complex decorative interlace patterns in circles and rectangles redolent of metalwork provide a setting for the beginning of St Luke’s text: Quoniam quidem (forasmuch), written in gold and silver letters. 

Title page from the Royal Bible, with purple parchment and script in gold and silver
Title page from the Royal Bible, Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 9th century: Royal MS 1 E vi, f. 30r

Title page from the Royal Bible, Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 9th century: Royal MS 1 E vi, f. 30r

Evangelist portrait of St Luke with his symbol of an ox, on a purple background, in the Royal Bible
Evangelist portrait of St Luke with his symbol of an ox, at the beginning of his Gospel, from the Royal Bible, Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 9th century: Royal MS 1 E vi, f. 43r

It seems likely that the purple was achieved through painting or staining the parchment, rather than by dipping the entire page in dye, particularly considering the many examples of purple background on only part of the page. Recent analysis of a manuscript now in Cambridge revealed that its purple background was achieved by painting a purple made from a plant, probably orchil (Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS McClean 30, discussed in Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts, ed. by Stella Panayotova (London, 2016), no. 3. You can find out more about how medieval manuscripts were made in our video article.

The use of this colour was particularly popular in the early Middle Ages, when scribes and artists demonstrated the preciousness of the Gospel message through extraordinary decoration in gold, silver and special purple stained or painted leaves. 

Kathleen Doyle

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23 February 2021

Illuminated Canon Tables

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Canon tables are ubiquitous and fundamental to Christian copies of Scripture over many centuries, in both Greek and Latin. Devised by the early Church Father Eusebius (d. c. 340), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, the tables present a unifying gateway to the Gospels, the four biblical accounts of the life of Christ written by the Evangelists, Sts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The tables contain numbered lists of passages that are either shared in two or more Gospel accounts, or are unique to a particular Gospel. As Eusebius explains in a letter to his friend Carpianus, he compiled the ten tables (or canons, in Greek) to help the reader ‘know where each of the Evangelists was led by the love of truth to speak about the same things’.

In deluxe copies of the Gospels, the canon tables offered an opportunity for artists to explore a different type of decoration from pictorial illustration and narrative initials. Typically the tables are presented in micro-architectural frames, sometimes complete with faux marble or porphyry columns under elaborate arched pediments.

Perhaps the most well-known canon table in the British Library is also the earliest: a sophisticated 6th- or 7th-century example in Greek made in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). These canons are now fragmentary, comprising only two leaves that were added to a 12th-century manuscript of the Gospels in Greek. The fragments give a glimpse of what must have been a truly splendid book, as they are written on gold, and embellished with bust portraits above the arches.

The Golden Canon tables, written on gold parchment with rich decoration
The Golden Canon tables, Constantinople, 6th-7th century: Add MS 5111/1, f. 11r

In an elegant 9th-century Latin example the decoration is enhanced by the presence of an archer who prepares to shoot an arrow across the pediment at another man, who is preparing to launch his spear.

Canon table 2, decorated with an archer and spear-thrower
The Eller Gospels, canon table 2, with an archer and spear-thrower, northeastern France, 2nd quarter of the 9th century: Harley MS 2826, f. 5r

In a later, 12th-century Latin version of the tables from the Benedictine abbey of St Pierre in Préaux in Normandy, the columns feature lush foliage topped by elaborated capitals, with twisted winged creatures embedded in the design. The first canon is set out as seven groups of five passages identified by Roman numerals (the Ammonian section references), divided by horizontal lines and presented in four columns. Each column is headed by the name of the relevant Evangelist (Math[eu]s), Marcus, Lucas and Joh[ann]es). At top, the Abbey’s patron saint St Peter sits above the central column, identified by the key held in his right hand. This attribute was derived from Christ’s statement that ‘That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church . . . And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 16:18-19). 

The Préaux Gospels, canon table 1, with St Peter
The Préaux Gospels, canon table 1, with St Peter, northwestern France, 1st quarter of the 12th century: Add MS 11850, f. 10r

The other nine canons all include a central nimbed figure holding a gold book, presumably representing an Evangelist and the Gospels themselves, which are to come following the elegant correlation of their contents.

The Préaux Gospels, canon table 6, with a nimbed figure
The Préaux Gospels, canon table 6, with a nimbed figure, northwestern France, 1st quarter of the 12th century, Add MS 11850, f. 14r

To find out more, you can also explore our articles on Manuscripts of the Christian Bible, Illuminated Byzantine Gospel-books, and Biblical Illumination, as well as our earlier blogpost on the Golden Canon Tables.

Kathleen Doyle

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19 January 2021

Merovingian illumination in a manuscript of Gregory's Moralia

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The British Library holds one of the earliest surviving copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s (d. 604) Moralia in Job, a highly influential commentary on the Old Testament book of Job. It was made only about a century after St Gregory’s death, possibly in Laon during a period of Merovingian rule. The Merovingians were a dynasty that ruled over the Franks in the territory similar to Roman Gaul from the time of Merovech (or Merovich), by tradition the father of Childeric I (d. 481) and grandfather of Clovis I (d. 511).

A detail view of an initial ‘I’ in the shape of a fish
Initial ‘I’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 5v (detail)
Full page of text with an initial ‘I’ in the shape of a fish
Full page with an initial ‘I’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 5v

The decoration of Merovingian manuscripts is distinctive. It features a limited palette of brown, green and yellow, and the use of zoomorphic initials (as the name suggests, where animals form all or part of the letter). Some letters, such as ‘I’ are formed of just one animal, like the fish of ‘I’(nter) (among) at the beginning of the first book, while other letters are more composite. The beginning of the third book of the commentary is a letter ‘B’ for Beatus Iob (blessed Job), made up of a fish and two birds.

A detail of an initial 'B' in the form of two birds and a fish
Initial ‘B’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 55v (detail)
A full page of text with an initial 'B' in the form of two birds and a fish
Full page with an initial ‘B’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 55v

Another characteristic feature of these manuscripts is the display script – enlarged coloured letters typically used to delineate important divisions, such as the beginning of new sections of text. The first book of the text begins with a heading ‘In expositione Beati Iob’ (An Exposition of the Blessed Job). Similarly, the beginning of the third book (incipit liber [tertius]) is announced in capital letters of alternating colours.

Detail of an uncoloured initial ‘Q’ in the form of two birds and a fish
Initial ‘Q’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 78v (detail)
Full page with an uncoloured initial ‘Q’ in the form of two birds and a fish
Full page with an initial ‘Q’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 78v

Something of the way in which these manuscripts were made is revealed by the letter and display script at the beginning of the fourth book: ‘Q’(ui) (who), formed of two facing birds and a fish, and ‘Incipit liber quartus’ (beginning of the fourth book). Both are carefully drawn in ink but left without any added colours. This suggests that the writing and drawing were done first and the colours were added later, but in this case not completed.

You can read more about Gregory the Great in our article on the works of the Church Fathers, and find out more about Merovingian art in our article on French manuscript illumination, both on the Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

Kathleen Doyle
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13 January 2021

Over 4,500 manuscripts now online

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Long-term readers of our blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in July 2020. With the arrival of the New Year and the beginning of a new lockdown in the UK, we are releasing an update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for readers and researchers to explore our amazing digitised treasures online.

A detail from a 16th-century grant of arms, showing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick within a letter O.
A historiated initial ‘O’(mnibus) containing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick (b. c. 1510, d. 1584), Officer of Arms of the College of Arms, London: Add MS 89166, f. 1r detail

There are now over 4,500 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of all the items currently available, as of January 2021:

PDF: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021
Excel: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

The upper cover of the Basikilon Doron, an autograph manuscript of the text with a purple velvet binding.
The velvet binding of the autograph manuscript of the Basilikon Doron, handwritten by King James I: Royal MS 18 B XV, upper cover.

During this period of terrible uncertainty, the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available for our readers online. Over the last 6 months alone, we have published over 850 items, from medieval and early modern codices and rolls to Greek papyri and ostraca. All the images featured in this blogpost are from collection items that we have digitised since June 2020. Here is a list of our most recent additions:

PDF: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021
Excel: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021(this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms
A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms: Harley MS 6563, f. 53v

Over the last months, some 620 Greek papyri have been published online, spanning from the 3rd century BC to the early 8th century. These include pieces of Greek literature, such as the famous ‘Harris Homer Codex’, an 1800-year-old manuscript preserving portions of Homer’s Iliad, as well as hundreds of fascinating documents, such as letters of parents to their children, managers and employees, magical charms and shopping lists. You can view this video for a short introduction to cataloguing the Greek papyri.

Thanks to a collaboration with the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, more than 250 inscribed pottery sherds (ostraca) from the 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD are now available online for the first time. A short overview is presented in our previous blogpost on ostraca.

A framed papyrus, featuring the text of Book II of Homer's Iliad.
The first frame of the ‘Harris Homer Codex’, containing Homer’s Iliad, Bk. II, ll. 101-149: Papyrus 126 (1) recto.

In September, we reported on the progress of a major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. This collaborative project, involving teams across the British Library, intends to publish approximately 600 Tudor and Stuart manuscripts online. The selection encompasses original letters by members of the Elizabethan court; literary manuscripts of the works of important Elizabeth and Jacobean poets such as John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney; notes by the alchemist and astronomer John Dee; and collections of state papers that highlight numerous aspects of the political and social history of this period, particularly the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. As of the start of this year, over a quarter of these manuscripts have now been published.

A letter from Queen Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, bearing her signature.
An original letter from Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, her ambassador in Scotland, concerning the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, dated 27 July 1567: Add MS 88966, f. 1r

Since this summer, two particularly significant manuscripts have been digitised, both of which can be explored in their entirety on the British Library’s new Universal Viewer. The Sherborne Missal, acquired by the British Library in 1998, has been called the ‘unrivalled masterpiece of English book production in the fifteenth century' (Kathleen Scott), with each of its hundreds of pages replete with astonishing illumination. Readers can learn more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost. The volume was also recently featured on BBC Radio 4’s Moving Pictures programme.

A miniature of the Crucifixion from the Sherborne Missal
The Crucifixion, from the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 380

Meanwhile in November, the British Library acquired and digitised the most important surviving manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon, a highly influential mathematician, theologian and astronomer, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London towards the end of the reign of Richard III (r. 1483-1485). The volume contains the most complete collection of his astronomical and mathematical works, including texts that are unattested elsewhere, as well as its original medieval binding and an unparalleled series of astronomical tables and diagrams. Learn more in our earlier blogpost on the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript.

Astronomical tables and diagrams from the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript
Astronomical tables and diagrams from an autograph manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon: Add MS 89442, pp. 30-31.

Many images of our manuscripts are also available to view and download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines
A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines: Harley MS 3450, ff. 5v-6r

Enormous thanks to all the members of staff across the Library whose hard work has made these achievements possible despite the difficult circumstances this year.

We wish all our readers a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy exploring our digitised collections!

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24 December 2020

The ox and ass at the Nativity

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Picture a traditional Nativity scene. The Christ Child is at the centre with his parents, Mary and Joseph, surrounded by a host of familiar characters who played a role in the unfolding events. There are angels, shepherds, the Three Wise Men or Magi (although they can be in a separate scene of the Epiphany), the innkeeper, sometimes even midwives, and, of course the ox and the ass.

The Holy Family with the ox and ass in a Book of Hours
The Holy Family with the ox and ass in a Book of Hours, France, Tours, 1510 – 1520: Add MS 35214, f. 52v

Images of the Nativity in medieval manuscripts also tend to contain some of these familiar characters. Yet after the three members of the Holy Family, the most frequently depicted are the ox and the ass. This is rather surprising as they are not mentioned in the Gospels, but they are one of the most ancient and stable elements in the iconography of the Nativity.

The earliest surviving text mentioning their presence dates from the 8th century (the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which was not included in the New Testament). However, the first known example of a Nativity scene in art, a carving on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan dated to AD 400, contains just Christ in the manger with the ox and ass on either side; Mary and Joseph are absent.

Nativity scene on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan
Nativity scene on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan, AD 400 (Giovanni Dall'Orto / Attribution only license / Wikimedia Commons)

One of the oldest medieval images of the Nativity in our collections contains a friendly-looking ox and ass, watching over Jesus in a rather elaborate crib, hidden in a corner beneath Mary, who takes centre stage. The midwife and Joseph appear to the right (midwives are found most often in earlier images but gradually disappeared from the iconography). This elaborate and stylised miniature is from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, a manuscript made in Winchester in the 10th century.

Nativity in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold
Nativity in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Winchester, 963-984: Add MS 49598, f. 15v

The ox and ass (or donkey) remained prominent features of Nativity scenes, often found alongside the Christ child. In this image below Christ is placed above Mary in a raised manger and the animals appear to have their noses in the manger where Jesus lies. Some commentators have interpreted this as a kind act by the animals, breathing on the baby to keep him warm, while for others the animals are feeding from the manger, referring to the passage in the Gospel of John, where Christ calls himself ‘the bread of life’ and promises eternal life to those who feed on him.

Scene of the Nativity in an architectural setting with the ox and ass at the manger from Germany
Scene of the Nativity in an architectural setting with the ox and ass at the manger, Germany (Swabia, possibly Hirsau): Egerton MS 809, f. 1v

A charming domestic scene in a Book of Hours in French (below) shows Mary reading or saying her prayers, while Joseph seems to watch her in bemusement (though his head-in-hand pose may denote that he is tired or sleeping). Both seem unaware that the baby Jesus, again at some distance, apparently has his hand in the donkey’s mouth. Of the two animals, the donkey is often seen as more playful, and so perhaps he is allowing the baby to prod him, while the ox (traditionally a sacrificial animal in the Bible) was seen by early Christians as symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice, so he is often shown as the more serious of the two.

Nativity with Ox and Ass in a Book of Hours
Nativity with Ox and Ass in a Book of Hours, France,  1400-1425: Harley MS 2952, f. 142v

In the 14th century, St Briget of Sweden’s vision of the Nativity had a major influence on subsequent iconography. She described seeing the ox and the ass and the Virgin kneeling before a ‘glorious infant lying on the earth, naked and glowing’ with ‘ineffable light and splendour’. And so images of Christ lying naked, worshipped by Mary (and sometimes Joseph) became common in devotional manuscripts. The ox and ass are never too far away, a benevolent presence, Christ’s first playmates.

Nativity Scene with the Holy Family, animals and shepherds with musical instruments
Nativity Scene with the Holy Family, animals and shepherds with musical instruments, Sept articles de la foy, France (Rouen), c. 1440: Royal MS 19 A XXII, f. 4v
Nativity with Mary kneeling, Joseph sleeping, and a cuddly ox and ass
Nativity with Mary kneeling, Joseph sleeping, and a cuddly ox and ass, in Eusebius, Chronici canones (trans. Jerome), Italy (Rome), c. 1485- c. 1488: Royal MS 14 C III, f. 119v

A page from the Hours of the Virgin in the Tilliot Hours contains an unusual two-part image where the ox and ass are present in both scenes. The lower image shows Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary arriving at the inn, leading a tired-looking donkey which has been carrying Mary in a saddle, followed by the ox. They are greeted by an inkeeper who in this telling of the tale is a woman. In the Nativity scene above, the ox has his nose to the manger, joining in the adoration of the Christ Child, while the donkey looks on from behind.

Nativity scene in two parts with shepherds above and Mary and Joseph arriving at the inn (below), from 'The Tilliot Hours
Nativity scene in two parts with shepherds (above) and Mary and Joseph arriving at the inn (below), in The Tilliot Hours, France (Tours), c. 1500: Yates Thompson MS 5, f. 41v

A picture of the two animals beside a baby in a manger is the simplest and most easily recognisable symbol of the Nativity. An example of this is a set of representations of key events in a medieval almanac. Each event is depicted with the number of years since it occurred, and, following the Ark (4308 years ago), is a simplistic drawing of an ox and ass on either side of a Christ in a crib. The animals make it obvious to the viewer that this is not just any baby, but Christ at his Nativity and so we know that the almanac was produced 1412 years after the birth of Christ, around the year 1412.

Illustrated almanac showing the number of years since key events in history including the Birth of Christ
Illustrated almanac showing the number of years since key events in history including the Birth of Christ (1412 years previously), England, 1400-1412: Harley MS 2332, f. 20v

And lastly, in this rather worrying scene the Christ Child seems to be trying to leap out of the manger. The donkey is holding him back by grasping his swaddling garments with its teeth. Again, Mary and Joseph are oblivious, though the ox watches in horror.

A Nativity scene with musicians in the four corners, from the Maastricht Hours
A Nativity scene with musicians in the four corners, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century: Stowe MS 17, f. 15v

Whether symbols, playmates, transport or babysitters, it certainly seems that the ox and the ass were useful characters at the Nativity.


Chantry Westwell

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